Let’s face it, you don’t meet guys like this every day. Irad Eichler lives in a kibbutz, believes in the socialist ethics upon which this country was founded, and is living a life that is driven by what seems to be an unrelenting desire to help other people. For the past 15 years, the “other people” he has chosen to focus most of his energy and attention on are the mentally disabled, for whom he created an organization called Shekulo Tov.
Shekulo Tov is not a charity. It runs on the concept of social entrepreneurship and is dedicated to the idea of bringing the mentally disabled out from the shadows, out of isolation, and into the community and the workforce. By creating what he calls “integrative units” – bookshops, cafés, a chocolate factory, a chain of women’s used clothing shops, and even dog-walking services – mentally disabled people are given organizational rehabilitation and interaction with the local community, leading to independence and integration.
If this sounds at all interesting to you, you are not alone. The UN thought enough of the “Integrative Unit Model” to award Eichler and Shekulo Tov a UN Prize for it two years ago, and delegations from such countries as China, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom are coming to study and replicate the program.
On the day I meet him, Eichler is visibly excited about his latest endeavor. As I meet him, he is still pumped from his latest endeavor.
“I want to tell you about our project in a psychiatric hospital called Sha’ar Menashe,” he says as we shake hands “We opened a rehabilitation center inside a psychiatric hospital. It’s the first time in the world. Before, there was a split between psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation. And now we have designed a project that combines the two to serve people with mental health in psychiatric hospitals. While hospitalized, these patients start the rehabilitation process by working in our new cafe. Then, once they feel ready, they can go out into the job market, or to our café out in the community. We have one nearby.” There are, in fact, now six of these cafés, spread throughout Israel.
“What we didn’t expect to have happen is people from the community coming into the psychiatric hospital to go to the café. This was kind of a turn-around, from people working in the café going out into the community, to community people coming into the hospital to eat and drink at the café. The coffee is good, and they can get a meal there for 25 shekels. A nice Friday brunch. And they know that they are helping people.”
Now 43 years old, Eichler is the product of a classic “blue and white” Israeli background. “My grandfather was one of the founders of the city of Ra’anana,” he says. Asked if his grandfather was one of the pioneers who rode out in wagons from Tel Aviv to build Ra’anana’s first houses in 1922, he replies, “No, he came out a little afterward and worked for those guys.”
EICHLER GREW up in Ra’anana, attended Ostrovsky High School, served in the IDF as a combat engineer, and was an officer for two years in Lebanon. He holds two master’s degrees from Bar Ilan University, one in anthropology, the other in business management – which he studied as Shekulo Tov got off the ground and was beginning to grow. He cites his mother, an educator, as his first mentor in the values of social service and helping others. Eichler, his wife and four children now live on Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu, not far from Kfar Saba.
“I think that’s the ultimate way of living today and I think it’s the way we should structure a community, as a welfare country. I really believe in this way of living. We specifically chose this kibbutz because it was more socialist than other kibbutzim we looked at. The essence of kibbutz living is giving up material things for yourself in order to balance life with other people who have less.”
Eichler took the usual post-army trip after completing his IDF service. He went to India, where he met someone who set him on the current direction of his life.
“I met a woman from Israel. She was working with at-risk youth. I came back to Israel and started working with at-risk youth as well. I worked with people with cognitive disabilities, and I realized that most of the offerings for people with cognitive disabilities are isolated offerings, activities away from the community. So I initiated a party, a party for people with these disabilities. I invited people from a list of mental health institutions that I got from a social worker I knew. I rented a club in the center of Tel Aviv and had the party. That’s how I got into the field of mental health.”
He immediately decided to take a fresh approach.
“In the traditional way of treating people with disabilities, the society looks for solutions that are kind of like babysitting. Give them something to occupy themselves, and that’s it. Put hundreds, thousands of people together to sit all day, doing basic chores, day in, day out, for the rest of their lives. People can’t strive like this. And there are no interactions between these people and people in the community.
“That’s what we challenge. Instead of shelter, keeping them isolated, we’ve been doing the integrative unit. Two assumptions: 1) We want as much interaction between people in the community and people with disabilities as possible. We want the community to see them, talk with them, and have a meaningful conversation. 2) We want these people to strive and meet their full potential. One way we do this is through the integrative unit. Like the bookshops and cafés.”
WE ENTER the Rebook Secondhand Bookshop on 177 Weizman Street in Kfar Saba, one of 17 such shops throughout Israel. Every book in the store is NIS 20. Both Hebrew and English, they range from small paperbacks to large, originally quite expensive art books. On the day I visited during the intermediate days of Passover, the special holiday price was two for NIS 20. People donate books, some outright, others for a trade-in value of NIS 5, discounting the price of whatever book they take away to NIS 15.
Says Elias, who greets me at the door, “This is a very nice place to work.” Adds Nimrod, “I do selection of the books to put on the shelves. And I work sometimes as cashier. And I help find books for customers on the Internet shop.”
Does he enjoy working here?
“Yes, it’s very fun. I enjoy it very much.” Elad explains, “Each book here is only 20 shekels. That’s much cheaper compared to Steimatsky and Tzomet. You can find here books in endless categories. People like to come to this store. It’s a good idea. And we here represent handicapped people. We show that people with mental illness are also part of the society in Israel.”
Shekulo Tov generates NIS 80 million a year. Their revenue streams are their businesses – their “integrative units” – and subsidies from the Israeli government. Oddly enough, they neither want nor pursue donations. Eichler says that this is to avoid the kinds of control that big money donors often expect. He says he has already declined some NIS 8 million from would-be donors.
“We believe that this gives us a great deal of organizational strength and power when we rely on our own resources. Also this gives us 100% organizational time to focus on rehabilitation, not pursuing money. At the end of the day, our goal is to get people with disabilities into the community. Everything we do, and all the money we have, is directed to this goal.”
AMONG THE different enterprises that Shekulo Tov operates for the training and employment of mentally disabled people is “Good Dog,” a dog walking company of which Eichler is particularly proud.
“People go away. They call the organization. One of our workers comes and they give them the key. Then worker comes every day, opens the door, gets the pet, walks it and brings it home. Our workers come into the homes of community people, often while they’re out for the day or even away on vacation, and take their precious, beloved pets out for a walk, all with trust and without ever even one problem. We have hundreds of customers for this, and around 150 dog walkers. That’s how we see inclusion and integration.”
Particularly interesting is the fact that Shekulo Tov has disabled people take part in virtually all of the organization’s program and policy decisions. They are there at the table with staff, participating in the discussions and helping to make decisions. They do this wherever they operate. Even if you apply for a job in Shekulo Tov, you will be interviewed by, among others, a “services user.”
The clients are “service users.” The staff are called “service providers.” There are 400 of these, all over Israel. In every integrative unit, be it a bookshop, café, or clothing store, three main professional staff people are involved: a commercial manager, a social worker/occupational therapist, and a supported employment expert (job coach). Eichler says, “So instead of being a dead end, each of our units is a transit point for our service users.” Or perhaps more accurately, a launching pad.
As for his vision of the future, Eichler declares, “In five to 10 years we want all rehabilitation centers to have interactions with the community, and we want a million disabled people to have been placed in the general work force. Not just in Israel, but all over the world. And I want in 10 years, when you and I sit down to talk, I want us to say, ‘Can you believe that people with disabilities used to be isolated, that they weren’t part of the community?’”
Perhaps this may seem as strange in 10 years as the thought that African Americans in the United States once had to ride in the back of a bus.